NEWARK — A federal judge refused to once again delay the corruption trial of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, despite an attempt by a Menendez attorney to push it back a month.
“Now that cert has been denied, it is time to try this case,” Judge William Walls said during a pre-trial conference Friday, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to take up the case.
Menendez attorney Abbe Lowell asked Walls to begin jury selection in September rather than the current date of August 23 to avoid summer vacation interruptions, and because the current Sept. 6 trial date would run into several holidays, including the Jewish high holy days. Lowell proposed beginning the trial on Oct. 2.
However, Walls said the unusual trial schedule he planned to use — holding the trial on Tuesdays, Wednesday and Thursdays — would likely alleviate some of those conflicts.
Menendez, a Democrat, is charged with aiding co-defendant and Florida eye doctor Salomon Melgen with a Dominican port security contract, a Medicare dispute and visas for the married Melgen’s foreign girlfriends in exchange for free private jet flights and hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations to a super PAC that aided Menendez, as well as to his campaign account.
Menendez was charged two years ago but the case has been delayed several times as the senator unsuccessfully has tried to get his indictment tossed.
Most of Friday’s hearing was devoted to wrangling between the government and defense attorneys over the proposed jury questionnaire.
Prosecutors objected to questions the defense wanted that ask potential jurors whether or not they voted for Menendez and for their opinions on issues like Iran sanctions, Cuba relations — two major issues that Menendez opposed the Obama administration on — and the Affordable Care Act.
“It risks politicizing the case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Koski said.
Walls responded that “the case is politicized already, just by the status of the defendant.”
Menendez attorney Raymond Brown said Cuba especially is important to the case because Menendez, who’s Cuban-American and an opponent of easing relations with the Castro regime, has made the issue “the raison d’etre of his political career.”
Walls indicated that he would allow questions about Iran and Cuba, but said he would change the Affordable Care Act to a question about Medicare, since Medicare has bearing on the case.
Walls was skeptical about questions the government wanted included that asked potential jurors about their experience with private jets. “I don’t see anything crucial about the jurors’ experience on a private jet.”
Walls said he would like to finish the case, which prosecutors estimated would take one month, before Christmas. But he joked there would be a faster way to get through with it.”
“Well, that would be trial by combat,” Walls said.
Menendez insists he will be vindicated and has been raising a lot of money toward reelection, in addition to millions he’s raised for his legal fund. The senator took in $1.2 million from donors to his 2018 reelection campaign during the first three months of 2017.